Lombard RAC Rally of Great Britain

When FISA finally gave in to an overwhelming demand and created, in 1979, an official World Championship for rally drivers, rather than just their cars, the tussle for the title was nail-bitingly close. All year Hannu Mikkola and Björn Waldegård made little impression on each other, and if one moved ahead significantly, the other soon caught up.

Finally, the first holder of the title was Waldegård, who won by a single point from his team-mate and keen rival. From that moment, Mikkola has nursed a determined ambition to win that title before he quit the sport, and this year he has succeeded. But he was a little disappointed by his second place in the Ivory Coast in October, for he would have liked to have won what turned out to be the deciding round.

However, the RAC Rally was yet to come, and although Mikkola had been the winner four times in the past, he felt that it would be fitting, as champion, to win the final round. The form book was not exactly with him for he has endured atrociously had luck in the past, whilst Audi’s record of servicing efficiency was pretty poor, but this time his Quattro turned in a reliable performance, there were no serious blunders in service areas, and his only significant delay was not the car’s fault at all.

It sounds like a reasonably safe formula for success, but we have not yet mentioned a factor which had perhaps a greater bearing on the outcome than all the others put together — the presence among the leading runners of the Audi team’s underdog, Stig Blomqvist.

Notwithstanding his incredible ability, and the manner he adapted amazingly quickly from front-wheel-drive Saabs to four-wheel-drive Audis, Blomqvist has never been declared a front line member of the works team. He has driven dealerentered cars and even ran as back-up driver to Mikkola and Michele Mouton, but always playing second fiddle and always showing his true ability only when Audi team management have allowed him.

His role has always been to support, and his wins for Audi on World Championship events have only been on those occasions when to have instructed him to hold back in favour of a team-mate would have been soles a car other than an Audi into the lead.

On the RAC Rally it was not necessary to provide any back-up support. Mikkola had already settled the World Championship, so he was not really looking for additional points. What is more, Lancia had clinched the title for makes and were not contesting the RAC, so every runner could be given a free rein. Mikkola wanted to win so that his championship year would be properly sealed, Blomqvist so that his true mettle could brought into the open with no team tactics to conceal it.

What transpired was a straight, clean, unhindered fight between two superb drivers, keen rivals but firm friends. Mikkola did have an early mishap which cost him some five or six minutes, but the final difference was such that Blomqvist would still have won despite this. There were various little problems which affected both, but what car can manage an entire RAC Rally at a winning pace nowadays without experiencing some sort of tribulation?

Compared with other rallies in warm climates, close to attractive beaches, the RAC Rally is hardly a contender in the comfort stakes. Rain, fog, wind, hard frosts and generally dismal conditions put it well below the league of the Acropolis or the Safari, but it has one major feature to its outstanding advantage, forest roads. Engineered as though they were specifically designed for rallying, the roads of Britain’s forests are immensely popular with competitors of all grades. The well cambered bends have a rhythm which lends itself to high speed driving through the trees and provides an exhilaration which has to be experienced to be appreciated.

Unfortunately, forests cost a great deal of money, for the Forestry Commission charges an enormous sum for their use. The cost, along with all the event’s other organisational cost, could not be met from she combined balance of entry fees and the sponsorship cheque of Lombard North Central, so another means of revenue was required. The Stately Homes of England came to the rescue some years ago, for in these private estates admission charges can be levied, unlike most of the forests used as stages. Their use has since increased, and this year of the 59 stages only 43 were actually in forests, eleven were in private estates or parks and four were at racing. circuits or airfields. To attract more people to the turnstiles, the start was moved from Sunday to Saturday so that more of them could be accommodated within the weekend.

These non-forests stages, termed Mickey-Mouse since their inception, are not at all popular with competitors, for they tend to be artificial, without any regular swing, and are quite often slippery and dotted with trees and gateposts which all too often catch out the unwary who believe, mistakenly, that tarmac is always less slippery than loose gravel. They are also relatively short, so that the advantage one gains by a very quick time is often not worth the risk. However, they are tolerated without much protest since everyone knows they bring a vital revenue and serve to bring the sport to a wider public.

This year’s rally began and finished at Bath, where it has been hosted twice before, and it attracted works teams from Audi, Opel, Toyota, Nissan, Skoda and Lada, with dealer consortium representation of Vauxhall and a token entry of one Escort from Ford. However, Audi, Opel and Toyota were undoubtedly going to be the main combatants, and much depended — or seemed to depend — on whether the four-wheel-drive Quattros would get the advantage of slippery conditions.

On the first day, a five-stage loop starting and finishing at Bath, the park stages were really slippery, and it came as no surprise that Audis occupied the leading places at the end of the day. Blomqvist was four seconds ahead of Mikkola, a very slender reward indeed for a whole day of rallying, and they were followed by Mouton (Quattro), Toivonen (Opel Manta) Buffum (Quattro) and Waldegård (Toyota).

The first and fifth stages were at Longleat, the second at Bristol’s Ashton Court, the third at Castle Combe and the fourth at Colerne airfield. Blomqvist suffered a terrible misfire, accompanied by flame-throwing backfires, on the first stage, but this was substantially cured by replacing a dropped lead from the electronic ignition. He experienced a much lesser degree of power loss throughout the event, however, for there was always a tendency to misfire at high rpm. His alternator was changed on that first day, whilst all the Quattros seemed to suffer from doors which were difficult to open.

Spectator attendances seemed to be rather on the low side, for car parks were far from full and there seemed to be no queues at entrances as there have been in past years.

The second day was as dry as the first as the rally made its first real departure from Bath on its way to the forests of Yorkshire. But first came park stages at Bewdley, Sutton, Weston, Trentham, Oulton, Knowsley and Harewood. It was at Sutton that Mouton had her first misfortune when a terrible spluttering gave the first signs of water having been put into her fuel tank by mistake. A long flushing session was needed to put this right, and the French girl was hardly in a happy frame of mind when that was over.

Salonen, Nissan’s number one man, went off into the trees at Trentham, and thereafter the entire team’s efforts were directed towards supporting his fellow countryman Peter Geitel. Knowsley was the scene of Mikkola’s near disaster when he hit a log and knocked a front wheel right off the car. To balance the car, co-driver Hertz rode on the boot lid for the remainder of the stage, being joined by a few helpers after crossing the finish line and driving on to the service area.

After Knovvsley came a time control at Leeds, followed by the Harewood stage, where Waldegård lost his fan belt. There was another stop at Harrogate (the policy this year was to visit city centres) before the forests were finally reached, starting with Boltby, Cropton and Pickering before disappearing into a 40-miler in the Dalby complex. It was here that Blomqvist made rather a mess of the rear of his car, but he nevertheless made such a good time that Mikkola was quite incredulous afterwards. Over the 40 miles, the Swede had taken no less than a minute and 20 seconds from the Finn, an amazing achievement. Vatanen went off into the trees here in his Opel, team-mate Toivonen’s engine blew up, Mouton hit a logpile, Eldund struck a log with his Toyota and many others went off and stayed off. It was bitterly cold that night, and frost had made the stage very slippery.

Mouton went off in Wykeham, having earlier cracked two brake discs which could not be replaced in the time available, whilst Buffum, the American driver who was giving a stirring performance, needed a replacement gearbox. Russell Brookes changed a bent rear suspension arm after Langdale, whilst at the Middlesbrough time control huge, uncontrolled crowds severely hampered the work of mechanics in the service area. They were even climbing on service vehicles to take photographs, and one wonders whether it is perhaps time to make the work of these tireless experts less exacting by keeping spectators out of their way. Toivonen holed his radiator and lost his fan belt in the isolated Hamsterley stage, whilst Vatanen, having gone off earlier, retired with a blown gasket which could not be changed due to serious warping of the cylinder head. Toivonen, in fact, was plagued by a blowing gasket right through the rally until he retired much later.

Among the British drivers Jimmy McRae and Russell Brookes (Manta and Chevette) were the two who were really in the running for national lead, but in Kielder McRae lost time when a puncture and a broken halfshaft demanded that the entire axle be changed. The Kidder forests were generally less rough than they have been, but very slippery due to frost. One of them had to be cancelled after some 40-odd cars had passed because a Forestry Commission Land Rover strayed inadvertently on to the stage and the organisers rerouted rather than cause a delay.

Eklund’s Toyota stopped suddenly and unheralded when the engine failed, thought to be due to crankshaft failure. It was perhaps just as well, for both crew members were in acute pain, Eklund from a broken thumb collected at Harewood and Dave Whittock with a displaced spinal disc caused when the car hit a log pile on Dalby, spun, jumped in the air and punctured on landing. Whittock was in so much pain that he could not get out of the car to help Eklund change the wheel, and it didn’t help much when the jack broke.

On into Scotland, stages became a little rougher, and there was a crop of punctures in Twiglees, not to mention clips with roadside logs. Brookes drove four miles on a flat, whilst both McRae and Waldegård collected punctures. Terry Kaby’s Chevette was losing water through a perforated head gasket, Brookes had new halfshafts lest his earlier puncture had caused some unseen damage, Mikkola was given a new brake disc and Blomqvist’s rear body panelling was gradually looking less tattered as mechanics worked on it whenever they had a chance, adding metal sheets and, before the end, adding the proper paint scheme.

After two stages in Grizedale, where Toivonen finally stopped and Waldegård ended up in a ditch with a wheel missing, the rally arrived at Windermere, where the little time available for service was taken up in making cars as fit as possible for the next leg, down through Wales and back to Bath. Still the rain was keeping away, but it was bitterly cold on the edge of that lake.

By this time Blomqvist’s lead was up to over eight minutes, whilst Mikkola had worked himself back up to second place, three and a half minutes ahead of Brookes. McRae was only 21 more seconds behind, ahead of Lampi and Buffum, whilst in seventh place was Kalle Grundel from Sweden driving remarkably in a Gp A Golf GTI.

On the Tuesday morning there was a repeat of the Great Grizedale stage, and it was here that McRae lost even more time to Brookes when he punctured and had to stop to change a wheel. From then on, he slowly began to overhaul Brookes, but it looked a pretty daunting task at that stage.

After a few parks came the group of stages in Clocaenog, followed by the two rather hairy stages on the hillside above Perunachno village. Laine’s car caught fire on the first, and the stage was held up when other crews stopped to help after seeing his displayed red cross card. On the next, Brookes had a very nasty moment indeed when he went off the road backwards and sailed noiselessly through the air not knowing where or how the car would land. Amazingly enough, it stopped on its wheels, but it took an army,of spectators hauling on a rope to get the car back to the road, by which time McRae had passed him into third place. Kaby also stopped here after going off, whilst Brookes inherited much trouble which necessitated replacement of track control arm, clutch, gearbox, half-shafts and front suspension.

At Dolgellau that evening there was more disruption of service areas by spectators, not helped by the fact that some teams were allowed to set up market stalls selling jackets and other goodies. The same seemed to be the case at Machynlleth later.

From then on, through the stages of Dyfi and Pantperthog down to the Brechfa forest, little changed among the leaders. Blomqvist was safely in the lead and not taking any chances, whilst Mikkola had resigned himself to second. McRae looked set to take third place, his best ever performance in an RAC Rally of which he and Ian Grindrod can be justly proud.

Further south, there was a loop through various stages in the vast area of Coed Morganwg, then an early breakfast stop at Swansea before a repeat of the same stages. Again there were no changes, and the stages even turned out to be dusty, almost unheard of on the RAC Rally.

At the service area after the final Margam stage there were handshakes all around, among the leaders, but no more than just, routine checks on cars, most of which w followed closely by alert mechanics on final journey to Bath, lest something drastic should befall any of them. Just then, Audi’s radio relay aircraft which had been airborne night and day throughout the rally, an unnecessary expense on a rally such as this, made a low pass to add congratulations to the winners. Jokingly, some drivers remarked that perhaps this was Audi’s way of spending unused budget allocations before the year finished.

That was it. Britain’s premier sporting contest was won by a man whose ability borders the phenomenal. With what appears to be no effort at all, for he invariably looks relaxed and never ruffled, Stig Blomqvist strode ahead of his rivals and stayed comfortably ahead without being really challenged at all.

Next year he will have a much bigger programme with the Audi team, so he could well be the top favourite for the world title even though he will be joined in the team by former champion Walter Röhrl. But there will be other changes. even newcomers, so we most wait to see what lies ahead. — G.P.

RAC Rally

1st: S. Blomqvist / B. Cederberg (Audi Ouattro Gp B) 8 hr 50 min 28 sec

2nd: H. Mikkola / A. Hertz (Audi Quattro Gp B) 9 hr 00 min 11 sec

3rd: J. McRae / I. Grindrod (Opel Manta 400 Gp B) 9 hr 12 min 19 sec

4th: L. Lampi / P. Kuukkala (Audi Quattro Gp B) 9 hr 16 min 57 sec

5th: R. Brookes / M. Broad (Vauxhall Chevette Gp B) 9 hr 19 min 01 sec

6th: J. Buffum / N. Wilson (Audi Quattro Gp B) 9 hr 21 min 16 sec

7th: J. Kankkunen / J. Pironen (Toyota Celica Turbo Gp B) 9 hr 31 min 48 sec

8th: K. Grundel / R. Michel (VW Golf GTI Gp A) 9 hr 38 min 20 sec

9th: M. Sundström / D. Orrick (Opel Ascona Gp A) 9 hr 42 min 18 sec

10th: M. Jönsson / J. Johansson (Opel Ascona Gp2) 9 hr 45 min 07 sec

Derek Bell, partnered by young German Stefan Bellof, scored a thoroughly deserved victory for the overall the Englishman failed narrowly to win the World Endurance Championship for Drivers. Riccardo Patrese and Alessandro Nannini (below) bolstered Italian honour by taking their Lancia LC2 to a strong second place, despite running on tyres ill-suited to the car.